LEWISVILLE — It took a few years and $6 million in fundraising, but the Children’s Advocacy Center for North Texas is unveiling its expanded Lewisville headquarters this week. The nonprofit will host a grand opening at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. Tan Parker, the Texas House representative for District 63, will be the keynote speaker.
In terms of real estate, the construction project more than doubles the size of the regional agency’s facilities, where it conducts forensic investigations, medical exams, case management and coordination — all for children who have suffered physical and sexual abuse.
In terms of reach, the construction signals the nonprofit’s commitment to serve the rising numbers of children and families rebuilding their lives after abuse. The center also serves children who have witnessed major crimes, such as assaults and homicides.
“When people learn that the numbers of children reporting abuse or experiencing abuse is going up, they don’t always know why we’re hearing and investigating more,” said advocacy center CEO Kristen Howell. “There are several reasons. North Texas is growing, and when your population grows, the problems that people have come with them. But the #MeToo movement has a role to play, too. When more people started talking about abuse as part of the #MeToo movement, it made other people realize that they’ve experienced abuse, too, and they didn’t understand that they had.”
Then, when the pandemic shuttered North Texas schools, abuse reports rose again. The advocacy center is the place where children come when child abuse is reported. Howell said 70% of the children the center serves are survivors of sexual abuse
“I tell people it took 20 years for the center to reach 600 forensic interviews,” she said. “In 2021, we will reach 1,500 forensic interviews if everything stays on pace.”
The board started raising money for the expansion in 2015, and Howell said the board continues to commit to meeting the increased demand to serve children. The effort stretched what was formerly 12,000 square feet into 30,000 square feet of space for interviews, counseling, meetings, physical exams and case management.
“We had already committed to expanding, and then we expanded even more during the pandemic,” Howell said. “It takes a bold board to make these decisions, and that’s the kind of board we have.”
The advocacy center shifted all of its mental health service to an online format when the pandemic closed businesses and schools and forced health care providers to use telemedicine to treat patients.
“It’s been a very dangerous year for kids,” Howell said. “Having kids out of school meant that they weren’t around the mandated reporters — the school counselors, teachers and the people in our schools who pay attention to them and intervene. It’s terribly sad to say, but for some kids, school is their safe place, and for some of them, school is much safer than home.
“What’s worrying, too, are the kids who are lost,” Howell said. “There are kids who haven’t enrolled in classes this year. When kids don’t enroll in public schools, it’s not always easy to locate them. The pandemic had that effect.”
The center was among the thousands of North Texas buildings damaged by water during the winter freeze, but the repairs are done, and the building still smells of fresh paint and millwork.
The expansion benefits both the staff and the families they serve. A new training and meeting room accommodates staff and volunteers from the center’s 50 partner organizations. New interview rooms, outfitted with two-way mirrors, allow specially trained investigators to interview children while police and center staff observe. A clinic-style exam room is equipped for medical exams.
Smaller meeting rooms are available for families to meet with case managers and counselors, and a playroom and playground just outside the center offer places where children can be children and interact with center staff.
Howell pointed out several paintings of trees in the center’s hallways. Instead of leaves, small handprints dot the branches in primary-color paint.
“These are our graduates,” Howell said, adding that the typical case takes two years from reporting to investigation, criminal court proceedings, services and, finally, completion. “This is really special. Kids see this. They add their handprints here and they see they aren’t alone.”